Bet Your Luxury Car Can't Do This

Watch the Video: The Lexus That Parks Itself Targets Buyers Who Want to Be First With the Feature

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DETROIT ( -- Boston auto dealer Herb Chambers admitted at first he "wasn't crazy about" the loaded 2007 Lexus LS 460 L sedan he bought for his personal use because the gadgetry was "kind of complicated." But he fell in love with the car on day two after an employee showed him in a few minutes how to use the hands-free Advanced Parking Guidance System, his favorite feature. "This car is pretty amazing," he said.

Wowed Detroit
Amazing indeed. Lexus wowed the Detroit auto show in January when it unveiled an industry first in its fourth-generation flagship: a car that could park itself.

Of course, the car isn't going to park itself for free. The base price of the smaller LS 460 sedan is $61,715 with delivery. The longer LS 460 L starts at $71,715. Buyers can get the parking-assist option on the base model LS 460 two ways: by ordering a $3,815 package with navigation system, voice-activated Bluetooth and XM Satellite radio, or a $5,645 package with those goodies plus a 19-speaker Mark Levinson audio format. On the bigger LS, parking assist is available only as a $700, stand-alone option.

Technological challenge
Parking assist "sure looks cool in the [TV] commercials," said Jim Sanfilippo, exec VP of auto consultant AMCI. The magic of parking assist isn't just its availability but making it user-friendly, he said, a challenge that has confounded other car marketers.

"It's incredibly clever" of Lexus to add the feature, said Todd Turner, president of consultant CarConcepts. He described it as "no small poke at Mercedes-Benz."

The goal isn't to draw in the average parallel-parking-challenged driver but to offer luxury-car buyers a first-on-your-block feature. Innovation is very important to the Lexus buyer, who "likes to have something someone else doesn't," said Brian Bolain, the brand's manager-national interactive and contextual marketing.

Mercedes-Benz problems
Mercedes-Benz ran into quality problems in recent years as it added more complex gizmos to its vehicles, although the automaker said this year its quality has greatly improved. The marketer's S-Class has a rear video on its navigation screen with lines to show parkers where the car is aimed.

Germany's BMW was broadly criticized for its iDrive system, an eight-way controller knob for 700 functions that bowed in 2001 on BMW's top-of-the-line 7 Series. It was simplified two years ago after owners and the media called it too complicated.

Lexus' parking assist, on the other hand, "takes less time to do than to explain," Mr. Bolain said. "It was much easier to do than I expected."

The luxury arm of Toyota Motor Sales USA launched the new LS 460 late last month in a push that included a 24-hour roadblock on Yahoo. Two of three national TV spots from Team One Advertising, El Segundo, Calif., show off the parallel-parking option. The system also can back the car into a space.

How it works
But the car won't do everything for its owner. Drivers must identify a parking space roughly 4 feet longer than the LS, pull up ahead of it and put the car in reverse. The navigation screen switches to a rearview camera image with a box and four arrows. The driver pushes the desired arrow for the targeted position, then hits the "OK" button on the screen and lets go of the wheel. If the driver touches the gas pedal or exceeds 2.5 miles per hour, the system will deactivate. The system won't work on a sloped street.

Lexus doesn't expect any liability issues since the driver is still responsible for safe maneuvering of the vehicle and insuring any parking space is clear of pedestrians.

The automaker introduced parking assist in Japan three years ago on the Toyota Prius hybrid car. A spokesman said the idea came from a team of engineers in Japan, where most driving is urban. Sales in Japan weren't available, but the spokesman said, "If it wasn't popular there, it would have never made it over here."

While he said it's too early to say who's buying the feature, Lexus is targeting mostly affluent males with a median age in the mid-50s.

Lexus expects to sell roughly 30,000 new LS models in calendar 2007; Mr. Bolain didn't have a projection on how many would be sold with parking assist. But the ads are drawing a lot of showroom traffic, the spokesman said, and the vast majority of dealer orders for the car are with the system.

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